I stumbled across an article in LiveScience.com which referred me to the actual article on theconversation.com entitled “Freaks, geeks, norms and mores: why people use the status quo as a moral compass” by Christina Tworek, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The article discusses a series of studies by the author and by psychologist Andrei Cimpian demonstrating that people “…use the status quo as a moral codebook- a way to decipher right from wrong and good from bad.” (Id. at 1.)   “… Just because a behavior or practice exists, that doesn’t mean it’s good-but that’s exactly how people often reason.” (Id.) That is, we take the “what is” actually happening in life to decide “what ought to be” or what should be the outcome. (Id.) “Thus, we see the commonplace as good and how things ought to be.” (Id. at 3.)

Why? In the words of Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011) it is all about System 1 thinking, or as Ms. Tworek explains:

When coming up with explanations to make sense of the world around us, the need for efficiency often trumps the need for accuracy. (People don’t have the time and cognitive resources to strive for perfection with every explanation, decision or judgment.) Under most circumstances, they just need to quickly get the job done, cognitively speaking. When faced with an unknown, an efficient detective takes shortcuts, relying on simple information that comes to mind readily.

More often than not, what comes to mind first tends to involve “inherent” or “intrinsic” characteristics of whatever is being explained. (Tworek, supra. at 2.)

As an example of defaulting to System 1 thinking, Ms. Tworek points to the prevalence of separate bathrooms for men and women. When asked why, our initial response might be because of the anatomical differences between men and women.  In reality, Ms. Tworek explains that the practice came about in the late 1800’s as part of the changing politics to reinforce “… the notion that women’s place in society was different from that of men.” (Id. at 2.)

Conducting different experiments, the researchers were able to show that,

…People who favored inherent explanations were also more likely to think that typical behaviors are what people should do.

We tend to see the commonplace as good and how things should be. For example, if I think public bathrooms are segregated by gender because of the inherent differences between men and women, I might also think this practice is appropriate and good (a value judgment).  (Id. at 3.) (Emphasis original.)

 Further, the researchers found that this bias exists in children as young as 4 to 7 years old.   Those “… who favored inherent explanations were also more likely to see typical behaviors … as being good and right.” (Id. at 4.)

Consequently, to engage a party to think “outside of the box”, we need to reframe the “what is” into an alternative “what ought to be” explanation.  “

[B]y subtly manipulating people’s explanations, we could change their tendency to make is-to-ought-inferences.”  (Id.) By providing an alternative or different explanation (which is what a good negotiator/mediator does all of the time!), we can perhaps change a person’s System 1 thinking from if “x” is so, then “y” must be correct to be if “x” is so, then perhaps it is due to “a” or “b” or “c”.

So, now that we know that most folks use the status quo as a heuristic or System 1 shortcut to determine what is morally right or wrong, we must get them to think “outside of the box”, by reframing the issue and its explanations.

… Just something to think about.




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